We’ve all read the memoirs, seen the documentaries and heard the songs that lovingly reconstruct the glory days of the lower Manhattan art scene.
This was a time when Cindy Sherman, Philip Glass and Katherine Bigelow were squatting in then-unwanted SoHo lofts, when Patti Smith staged happenings at Tompkins Park, and Basquiat tagged epigrams down Avenue A. Warhol built his factory, a nervous Woody Allen did stand up at The Bitter End, Bette Midler crooned at bathhouses, Blondie and Talking Heads got sweaty at CBGB and Bob Dylan strummed away at Café Wha? It’s incredible to consider the creative genius that blossomed on this narrow morsel of land.
But like a chef making a rich, syrupy reduction: the scene has gone through many changes in the last fifty years. From the early, surprising combination of ingredients (low rent, counter-culture), to furious bubbling over an open flame (the punk scene, drugs, performance art, AIDS activism) and finally, simmering down into a sweet and easily marketable sauce (The New Museum, white-walled commercial spaces, smokeless venues like The Bowery Ballroom.)
While it still has much to offer, one can’t help but feel a little miffed that much of the DIY spirit that made the downtown arts scene so vital and vibrant seems to have boarded the F Train & never returned.
That’s why it’s so exciting to attend an event south of Union Square that shares the bold and brazen spirit of those bygone thinkers and post-modern party animals. Namely, Glasskin Arts debut showcase- a night of composition, performance and video art that took place on an unseasonably warm December evening at Tenri Cultural Institute in the West Village.
Glasskin is a trio of young musicians (Frederique Gnaman on violin, Ricky McWain on clarinet, and Jeremy Rafal on piano) whose founding mission was to “enhance and broaden the experience of classical music performance”.
The night was punctuated by a handful of performances (each a collaboration between musicians and visual artists) with attendees encouraged to move freely around the space- interacting with the work and one another. While this approach requires an adjustment to one’s preconceived ideas about audience etiquette, after a few collective mouthfuls of wine the room relaxed and a dialogue (both critical and social) began.
The first piece was The Great Escape - a jaunty original composition by British-born Matthew Entwistle, performed by Glasskin and accompanied by The Fly by Night’s experimental film, Experiments in the Revival of Organisms- a splicing of original and found material. With its hypnotically grotesque images of dying fish spliced with children’s animation (conjuring up comparisons to occult-obsessed auteurs such as Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger) and Entwistle’s Escape was the perfect amuse-bouche for the evening – both deliciously enticing and refreshingly sprite.
This was followed by a flute solo from 1958 by Italian composer Luciano Berio and performed by Mitzy Nonaka Colletes. Berio’s sequenza was paired with a video installation by Kody Trauger, a graduate of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Trauger’s piece titled berio.loadPixels0; comprised of many elements (a camcorder being handed around the audience, the music performed by Nonaka Colletes, and the fluttering and jolting of Trauger’s own hand) the combination of which, when fed into Trauger’s computer, resulted in a lush, watery video projection.
The night was rounded out by a series of contrasts by Bartok and performed by the members of Glasskin (after an adorable dash to change into formalwear – more appropriate for Bartok, this classical novice supposes.)
While I can’t be sure, I’m relatively certain the handsome collection of bright young things who made up the sizable audience at Tenri were, like me, not particularly schooled in salon music. Though, while the city buzzed and honked outside, we were all seduced into an evocative new sphere by the combination of playfully exotic video installation scored by the live whirling of infuriatingly talented young musicians.
If this night doesn’t prove to the skeptics that there’s something fresh and inventive still stirring down there in the toes of Manhattan, I don’t know what will.
Anton De Ionno
Photos courtesy of Jackie Skye Kim